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Durham University Union Society Sparks Protest by Hosting Sexist Godfrey Bloom

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On Friday the 9th of May the Durham Union Society gave a platform to openly sexist far-right MEP Godfrey Bloom, who is a representative of the European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

Bloom was invited to debate alongside Sebastian Payne (Online Editor of the Spectator) against Flo Perry (Social Secretary of the Durham University Feminism Society) and Angela Towers (HQer, No More Page 3 Campaign). Bloom was proposing the motion ‘This House believes that it’s a woman’s world’. This debate was co-hosted by Durham University Feminism Society and sparked a public protest organized by Durham University Students Against Austerity (DUSAA).

Bloom is well known for striking journalist Michael Crick in the street and calling female audience members ‘sluts’ at a UKIP party conference. In 2004 he told an interviewer that "no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age."

Bloom’s sexist views are well publicised; he has stated that feminism was a "passing fashion" and prostitution is something "most girls do because they want to." He openly admitted to making misogynist comments at a dinner party with the University of Cambridge Women’s Rugby Club in 2004. The Durham Union Society thought it was worthwhile to invite the man himself to speak on the position of women today.

President of the society Rishiraj Goenka states on the Facebook page for the event "I was eager to have a representative of the European Parliament Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality. It is very interesting to listen to the views of someone who has opposed most of these measures." Goenka expressed confusion over the fact that DUSAA chose to protest publically outside the debate.

DUSAA have explained lucidly and concisely their motivation for protesting on their Facebook event page. Calling out Bloom’s "long track-record of sexism, racism, and ableism’ they suggest that ‘his bigotry and oppressive politics will outweigh the usefulness of his contribution to any conversation."

‘With academic discussion of women’s rights on the campus already woefully scarce, it is of particular consequence that the DUS should see fit to draw upon the words of an avowedly sexist MEP; it is insulting to expect women to defend their rights against a misogynist.

"We deplore that the choice that has been made appears to privilege provocation and polemic over constructive debate. Inviting Bloom to the debate is a gimmick that betrays the Union Society’s lack of interest in women and its disrespect for the thought-provoking discussion it purports to promote within the university. 

"While we cannot prevent Mr Bloom from holding his views, we can express anger at the DUS for providing him with a platform from which to propagate them. We are aware that Bloom’s supporters, and indeed many of his detractors, will oppose this position on the basis of freedom of speech. We do not, however, deny him this right, but rather exercise our own by protesting this Friday on behalf of the many groups he seeks to vilify."

They also answer to any bewilderment regarding their affiliation with the cause of women’s rights: "Some of you may be wondering why DUSAA, as an anti-austerity group, has decided to protest this debate, why we seem to have taken a sudden interest in the women's liberation movement. The fact of the matter is, however, that the struggle against austerity and the women's liberation movement, like so many struggles against oppression, are intrinsically linked."

According to university newspaper Palatinate, Goenka warned in his opening words that "while we are a bastion of free speech, this does not give the right to anyone to be offensive." One member of the audience criticized the Union during the questions for inviting Bloom "in a bid for controversy." He was ejected from the debate for doing so.

Bloom was reportedly as reactionary and offensive as ever, describing the squeezing of people’s backsides as ‘life’, the feminists present as "a little bit shrill and loud." His partner in the debate, Sebastian Payne, described the alleged takeover of the economy by women as a "Trojan Horse takeover."

Angela Towers informed the audience (consisting significantly of members of DU Fem Soc) that "women do globally two-thirds of the world’s work. In return for that, they receive 10% of the income and they only own 1% of the property…Those statistics alone say it is not a woman’s world." Mr Bloom told her, "lap it up while you can young lady." All in all, he regurgiated what he has said so many times before, giving nothing more than a live presence to the archive of 'Bloom opinion' that already exists in abundance on the internet.  

Speaking to Palatinate, next term’s Union President Joe Hill said "I believe that (the President’s) intention in holding the debate was to hold a discussion of what had been achieved by the feminist movement so far, what was yet to be achieved, and the state of the world as it currently is."

Providing more airtime to an avowed sexist in a position of power is a problematic way of achieving such a ‘discussion’, and arguably far from the most effective means. A commenter on the DUSAA event Facebook page writes "the fact that an idea exists on a topic does not mean it has to be granted prevalence in the public debate. By choosing to give a platform to someone who already has public access ... you also decide at the same time to restrict other (potential) speakers' access to audiences."

The debate is described by another commentator as pitching "feminist argument against (one of) the most virulent forms of sexism."

Durham University is ranked very highly in UK, and it seems that for some students the Union’s choice to position a bigoted misogynist as equal opposition in a discussion on the position of women in the world is something of an embarrassing gimmick.

One student told the Palatinate that the protestors had in fact "missed the point of debate. By allowing Godfrey Bloom to voice his opinion, it will become very clear what the answer is."

This seems to suggest that inviting sexist Bloom, as a kind of specimen of sexism, is worthwile in itself as it helps to establish the fact of pervading inequality between the sexes. But the presentation of an indidivual and their far-right views doesn't constitute worthwhile debate, and a quick click through Bloom's back catalogue of interview clips reveals his pervading inability to adhere to a constructive method of debate. He habitually avoids sincere engagement with facts presented to him and repels intelligent discussion. One could suggest that to lend an ear to him may further enlighten us to the intraciate workings of patriarchy and make us importantly aware of its employed rhetoric. Conversely, one could argue that the rhetoric of the kind emplyoyed by Bloom is prevalent enough for us to be adequately informed of its nature, and is best combated by treating it as the embarrassment it is, rather than creating a polite space in which it can be displayed further.

Durham University student Rose Wallop questions the "we have to hear his views in order to fight against them" line of thought: "Are we simply trying to cure Bloom himself of his sexism or will vanquishing Bloom's sexism in front of a live audience have an exorcistic effect on the other misogynist men in the room? How will we know that that's happened?"

It could indeed be argued that to hold the fact of inequality between the sexes as one ‘up for debate’ is a deep insult to those on the receiving end of sexism in its many forms.

As Flo Perry highlighted in the debate, violence against women, by men, is an urgent issue. One need look no further than the recent news of the mass abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria (or ‘Bongo Bongo’ Land, as Bloom would say) as a horrific example of this. Yet according to the insiduoulsy patronising Bloom, "there are bad things going on but generally speaking … it will be a woman’s world if you have faith. I have faith in women to get to the top on merit."

Should it be a priority to provide another public platform for an already highly publicised, far-right misogynist? Crucially, are there better ways in which that platform could be utilised?

In 2014 perhaps discussions that progressively interrogate what measures can and should be done to tackle ‘global patriarchy’ (Towers) - rather than ones which debate its existence with a sexist - are what we desperately need.

The Palatinate’s report on the debate can be found in full here.

Photography by Marc Owen Jones.

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